Like the final College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium, the first at TD Ameritrade Park will lack Mardi Gras beads in the stands and gumbo cooking in the parking lots. But even without the beads, food and the Gorilla ball LSU teams generally bring to Omaha’s proudest sporting event, the CWS opens Saturday with a menu of story lines sure to whet the appetite.
For starters, there’s the new digs.
TD Ameritrade Park debuted April 19 in Nebraska’s 2-1 victory over Creighton before a paid crowd of 22,000 fans, but its opening act on the big stage arrives as North Carolina faces Vanderbilt in the CWS opener. Former President George W. Bush will throw the ceremonial first pitch. Constructed at a cost of $131 million, the new downtown ballpark replaces venerable Rosenblatt, the CWS host since 1950.
The famous Road to Omaha statue outside of Rosenblatt was rededicated earlier this week in front of the new stadium. The trademark Hammond organ from Rosenblatt has moved, too, even though beloved organist Lambert Bartak has retired.
On the diamond, the Southeastern Conference has a chance to start a football-like run of dominance.
South Carolina, which closed the old ballpark with a sweep of UCLA in last year’s championship series, is one of three SEC teams looking to give the conference its third straight title. Florida returns after going two-and-barbecue in 2010, and Vanderbilt — boasting a dozen MLB draft picks — makes its first CWS appearance after several near-misses.
All three SEC teams carry national seeds.
Other headlines include the latest homecoming of Paul Mainieri protégé Brian O’Connor, who grew up down the road from Omaha in neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa, making his second trip as the Virginia coach after going 1-2 in 2009.
Another coach returning to Omaha is Texas A&M’s Rob Childress, who spent eight seasons as an assistant at Nebraska in nearby Lincoln. The Cornhuskers were a crowd favorite when Childress & Co. made the short trip to Rosenblatt in 2001, 2002 and 2005, first under Dave Van Horn (who brought Childress from Northwestern State, where Childress served as pitching coach from 1995-97) and then Mike Anderson.
In his sixth season at A&M, Childress has the Aggies making their first trek to Omaha in 12 years.
And what would be a CWS without some kind of odds-beating Cinderella story? This year, that team is Cal, whose program was on the verge of extinction only a few months ago.
The bad news for the Bears is they’re the only team in the field that wasn’t a No. 1 seed. In fact, A&M is the only team except Cal that lacks a top-eight national seed.
This CWS has not only the three SEC heavyweights, but also brand-name powers Texas and North Carolina back to take their latest shot at the crown.
It has a new stage and the start of a new era.
If only it had the Mardi Gras beads.